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Published: Friday February 8, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday April 20, 2013 MYT 5:27:47 PM

Digging into DNA in The Violinist’s Thumb

Cutting-edge science is presented in a humorous and light-hearted style that balances theory with anecdotes and engaging human stories.

The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales Of Love, War, And Genius, As Written By Our Genetic Code Author: Sam Kean Publisher: Little, Brown/Hachette Book Group, 389 pages

MICROSOFT billionaire Bill Gates started out tinkering with a second-hand computer bought at a rummage sale and changed the world as we know it. Recently he said that if he was starting out today he would turn his attention to genetics.

We have entered an era where the field of genetics has spread beyond the dominion of big, government-funded university laboratories, to a world where the technology used in reading and manipulating DNA is rapidly becoming available to enthusiastic amateurs, giving birth to a burgeoning global “bio-hacking” community.

Just as Steve Wozniak began building the first Apple computers in Steve Jobs’ bedroom, nowadays amateur geneticists routinely carry out procedures in garages, spare rooms, and university halls of residence that would have cost millions barely a decade ago.

Though it might seem inconceivable at the moment, developments in genetics are set change our lives and the world we live in within the next few decades just as surely as Microsoft and Apple have become household names (and products) today.

The Violinist’s Thumb is a history of genetic research, from Gregor Mendel and his experiments on peas in the 19th century, up to the present day. It is an erudite and well researched book that brings this sometimes daunting subject to a larger public in a style that is both humorous and light-hearted, interspersing the heavy theory with anecdotes and stories that keep the reader involved. I found myself reaching for the dictionary more than once – Grawlix, Boustrophedon, Panjandrum anyone? (Answers at the end of this review!)

In the 21st century, it seems incredible that science risks being pushed aside by ancient creation myths, yet in America society is solidifying into opposing camps, pitting religion against science, with a pervasive wave of deliberate ignorance being propagated. A worrying proportion of the American population firmly believes that the earth is only a few thousand years old despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Sam Kean’s books clearly sets out the known facts that contrast with and give lie to creationist fiction.

Back in the 19th century, when Gregor Mendel was discovering the mechanisms whereby heredity worked, religion and science worked hand in hand. Mendel himself was a monk, though it might be fair to say he chose this path more out of necessity that devotion.

My father was a biochemist. My school science lessons were supplemented with playful dinnertime tutorials. “Mendel’s first two rules of heredity are 1, the first son inherits the family farm, and 2, the second son joins the priesthood.” Of course he was joking, but humour aside, it depicted a reality where education was costly and invariably reserved for the rich elite, or those who joined a religious order.

In the 19th century, studying beyond primary level was financially impossible for Mendel, but luckily his uncle owned a secondary school, so despite lack of means, he was able to continue his schooling. However, to study at university, Mendel’s only choice was to sign his life over to the church. Without that support, a great mind would have been lost to science.

Mendel’s story, and many others, make this book an enthralling read – the passages on Zipfian theory and its implications are quite mind-blowing. A fascinating read for anyone with an interest in cutting-edge science.

Grawlix: A sequence of symbols used to represent a profanity – eg, %$#*!

Boustrophedon: From right to left and left to right in alternate lines.

Panjandrum: A person who is perceived to have a great deal of authority or influence.

Tags / Keywords: Books, Lifestyle

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